Spanish speaking skills lost in translation

By Grant McGee: Local Columnist

There’s a joke I heard from some educator-types: What do you call a person who knows a few languages? Multilingual. How about someone who knows two languages? Bilingual. And someone who knows one language? American.

For one reason or another, I’ve tried to learn foreign languages.

My first experience with a foreign language was the time the family moved to the Bahamas. We were told for me to be admitted into the Bahamian sixth grade I had to know a certain amount of French.

My “genius” sister was brought in to teach me French. She was in college and was fluent in five languages. After a few weeks she threw up her hands in disgust, telling my mother I was incapable of learning and I lived in a fantasy world (well, she was half right anyway).

I just hadn’t learned the language to her expectations. I learned enough to put together a phrase that I hoped meant “Speak slowly please, I don’t understand fast French.” Luckily, my parents moved back to the states by the end of the summer.

I took French in high school. A foreign language was required and I had previous experience. And as a teenage boy with raging hormones, dreams of meeting a lovely French-Canadian girl and living happily ever after danced in my head.

Then I came to New Mexico. I found myself wishing I had joined my pals in Spanish class in high school. I was butchering the Spanish language all over the place. I figured I had to do something when I was asked to emcee an awards ceremony in Roswell. I was seriously mispronouncing many Spanish surnames. For instance, I would announce Jaramillo as “jar-a-mill-oh.” Los Jaramillos in the stands would yell the correct pronunciation of their name at me in unison.

I had the rudiments of Spanish down for a few years. Then I bought a pocket translator. I knew it would allow me to travel all over the Spanish-speaking world with ease. On one of my first trips I was wandering in the northern Sonora town of Cananea looking for a bathroom. I punched “bathroom” into my translator. “Tocado” was the answer. So I walked up to a guy.

“Donde estan el tocado, por favor.”

He scrunched up his face, “Tocado?”

“Si,” I said with a smile, “tocado.”


A fellow tourist came rushing up. “Bano,” she said. “You’re looking for el bano.”

I don’t know why “tocado” came up on the screen, it might have been because the translator used Castillian Spanish. Near as I can figure I asked the guy, “Where is the hairdo, please.”

I ended up taking a conversational Spanish class.
I found out later that French and Spanish, both having Latin as their root language, are close enough that folks in Mexico can generally understand what is being said in French.

I think I know enough French and Spanish to find a bathroom, something to eat or a hotel room in Mexico, Argentina, Quebec or French Guiana.

I’ve been told a real good way to learn a foreign language is to immerse yourself in another country.

It is said the best way to learn a foreign language is to have a romance with someone who speaks only that language.
I’ve ruled that out, though. The Lady of the House would not be amused.

Grant McGee hosts the weekday morning show on KTQM-FM in Clovis. Contact him at: